l.z.y./Data

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21-31 May 2003

31 MayThe art of curmudgeonliness
31 MayThe race to space
31 MayGame study
31 MayST potshots
31 MayNJC's new programmes
31 MayAcademic blogs
31 MayGood that Singapore Dream is over
31 MayConspiracy
30 MayInterview Post-mortem; Quantifying the Unquantifiable
30 MayNLB response
27 MayInterviews
27 MayProblem with the kilogram
27 MayCourage Fund; contact tracing
27 MayCongo & possible UN intervention
27 MayPaved with Good Intentions
26 MayMy So-Called Life
25 MayImmigrant Nations
25 MayCult Movies
25 MayStar Trek reflects America
25 MayThe Real Agenda
24 MayThe Effectiveness Argument
23 MayThe overflowing Courage Fund
23 MayThe age of cell phones
22 MayUSP interview

The art of curmudgeonliness

31 May 2003 11:39 PM SGT (link)

OK I thought I had blogged enough for a day but I just had to mention this: Defending the Right Not to Have a Nice Day (New York Times, free reg. req.). It's a paean to America's "cranks, complainers and curmudgeons":

"I don't know why we're so evasive," he [Andy Rooney, "the famously cranky 60 Minutes commentator"] said. "People are not honest about what they say. Part of it passes for good manners, and part of it is wanting to be liked by not being negative about things. Negative does not have a good reputation as compared with affirmative."

Indeed, these are tough times for America's cranks, complainers and curmudgeons. Maybe because there's so much that is genuinely wrong - with threats of terrorism and a rotten economy - Americans just aren't in the mood for pessimism. And anyway, in a culture dominated by the relentlessly cheery ethos of the self-help movement, grumps and contrarians are frequently dismissed as mildly delusional, or worse, viewed as malignancies that must be isolated and cut out.

- New York Times, Defending the Right Not to Have a Nice Day

But are all "cranks, complainers and curmudgeons" really pessimists at heart (suggested in the article)? Maybe some of us are just wired to take offence to small things and complain about them relentlessly, without any kind of general opinion to life or other people in general. I don't consider myself a pessimist; in fact I think cynicism in moderate amounts is a wonderful thing. Cynics can be the most idealistic people around, because they view the world in terms of their theories about how it should be, and the world invariably falls short, so here they go with their rants. In any case, I think that's better than the passive layman who's content with most of everything around him & confines himself to safe, insignificant things.

The race to space

31 May 2003 11:18 PM SGT (link)

The race into space - a report on the views of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry on the competition from China, not just in satellite launches or even orbital flights but going to the moon, and what's more, "permanent occupation" of it.

This whole thing smacks of Chinese paranoia that we saw some years ago about Chinese nuclear ambitions, because even if the Chinese were planning and executing orbital flights and moon landings - and kudos to them if they pull it off - I think it's highly unlikely that they would want to set up camp there permanently, for the simple reason that it's not worth it, in terms of the resources you'd get or the press you'll receive back on Earth. & that's not considering the legal questions that would arise from a unilateral grab of any lunar resources. (The writer even talks about Japan and India being drawn into the space race! like it was a nuclear arms race or something.) I think reality is less extreme: the Chinese will be good competitors to the US, but to resort to outright hostilities or land (or moon) grabs is quite inconceivable.

Game study

31 May 2003 11:10 PM SGT (link)

Games good for you? Really? Neat! - this makes good observations on trends of reporting, and the academic studies themselves, about gaming and its potential benefits or disadvantages. But a good point: nobody on either side is going to be convinced by just one or two studies, like the one recently about how playing video games improves visual skills. Also, Scott Rosenberg makes a good point about the study itself (Gaming-study blindness).

ST potshots

31 May 2003 10:37 PM SGT (link)

Tender Loving Care

AMERICAN global pre-eminence must not lead to unilateralism or it may end up with fewer allies as countries gang up against it, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew cautioned yesterday.

If America 'does not cultivate its friends and allies with more tender loving care, coalitions of the willing may become smaller', he said.

- ST 31 May 2003, SM urges tender loving care of US friends

I don't really know what to make of this. Was the SM being farcical? Or serious?

The wait is over

Singapore is off WHO's Sars list (ST 31 May 2003). Let the partying begin, for those who want to, but we still have to be vigilant.

NJC's new programmes

31 May 2003 10:10 PM SGT (link)

THERE will be no history, geography, physics or chemistry for the 140 students entering the National Junior College's new four-year programme that starts next year.

Instead, the students who will join the college at the Secondary 3 level will cover these subjects through such courses as space science, development studies and a humanities module entitled 'salt, spice, slaves and silk'.

...

NJC principal Virginia Cheng said its new programme is not just clever repackaging of the curriculum but was truly inter-disciplinary, 'to prepare our students for the new world and the real world'.

She explained: 'Much of the new knowledge, such as the life sciences, falls in between traditional disciplines. But also in the real world, knowledge is not compartmentalised in different disciplines.'

Students will study history, geography and economics in their development studies course.

Space science will cover what is taught in mathematics, physics and biology; and the module 'salt, spice, slaves and silk' will also teach students history, geography and economics by tracing the world trade in commodities.

- ST 31 May 2003, Forget physics, try space science

If this is just akin to a corporate re-branding exercise where names that previously had meaning to them got turned into cool-sounding hollow ones (some of my favourite examples: Spring Singapore, DBS and JTC), then that's alright. But if the NJC people are sincere in folding up the "traditional" (read: fuddy-duddy, boring) subdisciplines of science into funky ones like "space science", they should think about why those disciplines are there in the first place. In Newton's day the whole endeavour of physics, chemistry and so on was called natural philosophy, with a healthy dose of metaphysics thrown in. If not for progress made as separate fields of enquiry (e.g. the chemist concentrated on his experiment and didn't worry about the influence of physical factors, because that was ruled out by Newton's laws, and certainly not about why), the sciences would not have achieved as much success as it has today.

Subdisciplines are not created lightly, and I think any sort of curriculum that wants to combine it all has to first ensure that the students have a firm grounding in the separate disciplines. If not, the best outcome would be that everyone gets a superficial understanding of this "space science" and its constituents like the concepts of zero-gravity and rocket propellants. The worst would be that they wouldn't learn anything useful at all. I mean, I'm not an academic, but I think my concern about this attitude that the disciplines are impediments to better learning is warranted.

Academic blogs

31 May 2003 9:36 PM SGT (link)

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on Scholars Who Blog, which has information and interviews with many prominent academic bloggers on blogs like Instapundit.com, The Volokh Conspiracy and OxBlog.

However, I don't think l.z.y./Data will become an academic blog in a few months' time; though the author will be in university, yes, but I don't see much to blog about in mathematics. Maybe politics or philosophy.

Good that Singapore Dream is over

31 May 2003 8:53 PM SGT (link)

Today's ST has Laurel Teo saying it's Good that S'pore Dream is over. Not exactly over, but no longer a given, and hence it's a good time to reevaluate your goals and see whether you should put off the chase the 5Cs in favour of something else, something better, more fulfilling. This nicely dovetails with the Paved with Good Intentions essay.

Conspiracy

31 May 2003 8:07 PM SGT (link)

Conspiracy (IMDB) is an extremely unusual movie, in that it recreates a meeting which would be indistinguishable from a company board meeting or something like that except for its subject. The Wannsee conference was held in the Berlin suburbs in 1942 and headed by General Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Reich Security Main Office. Togther with other SS and Nazi officials, they discussed the Final Solution to the complete extermination of Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe (the protocol (minutes) of the Wannsee Conference translated into English). The conference was organised by Col. Adolf Eichmann, assistant to Heydrich; Hannah Arendt was referring to Eichmann when she talked about the banality of evil. Actually that phrase could be attributed to almost every participant, in that they were not fire-breathing anti-Semitic ideologues or crazed madmen, but mostly "normal" bureaucrats and functionaries who discussed over wine and a buffet lunch, and with plenty of racist jokes and political gossip, the best way of wiping out an entire race of people. The film doesn't need to manipulate the viewer with any artificial climax, and the only music comes via a Schubert record near the end (without it it would seem like a documentary). It's affecting, in a different way from, say, The Pianist, but no less important.

Interview Post-mortem; Quantifying the Unquantifiable

30 May 2003 9:49 PM SGT (link)

The interview went about as well as I thought it would, which means I didn't do that great. I think my problem is that I'm not the sort who can get all gregarious & chummy with perfect strangers that are deciding my future, and notwithstanding the barriers real and imagined. I'm too conscious of the fact that they're deciding my future, and hence I act like it's a police interrogation, except the fact that when I leave, I start regretting saying too little. That sucks, so now I'm just trying to think too much about it.

OK this can't really be a detailed post-mortem because I don't think they would want people divulging the questions, especially with more interviews lined up all the way through next month. But I did a questionnaire after the interview about the usual vague questions about your studying methods & how you work with others. Really mind-numbing.

But that got me thinking about, as I say above, quantifying the unquantifiable. When the scale 1 to 5 is mapped to "strongly disagree", "disagree", "neutral", "agree" and "strongly agree", and answers are given in the numerical way, is this a good way of really measuring the response to the question for the individual taking the test, or the overall result? What does it mean if the average response is, say, 2.5? An ever-so-slight shift to the negative? & how does that differ from 2.2, or 2.9? Do the decimals even mean anything in such situations?

I say this because I find it very difficult to give proper answers to questions where my answers have to be quantified like this. In the first place, it's not exactly clear what the difference between "strongly agree" and "agree" is. Question: I'm standing at the river bank and there's someone drowning in the river. I will jump in to rescue him. Strongly agree? But you can't swim, so you'll probably not be helping the drowning man at all. Bummer. Agree? I would put that because I "agree" on the principle of helping someone in need, but I need more information on whether I would "strongly" agree or "mildly" agree or "hesitantly" agree or goodness knows what. On the other hand, mitigating circumstances are important for me to decide whether I should "disagree" with a person's behaviour that's normally considered bad (to take an example), or whether I should "strongly disagree" - condemn him/her. So if every respondent has that problem, how accurate would their responses be? And how accurate would averages of the responses be?

So it all depends on the situation, and it's not helped by the fact that these questionnaire questions are often annoyingly vague. I also don't take kindly to the practice of repeating the question in different ways - I feel it's a sort of trick, although psychologists probably have fancy theories about how you can better read the minds of those responding to the questions depending on how they're phrased.

IMDB Movie votes

Apropos to this problem, I'm also trying to find a way to remove my movie votes at IMDB, made when I had not fully considered the issue. I find I cannot distinguish helpfully between a "8", "9" or "10" for movies I like. Should "10" mean a "perfect" movie; is there such a thing; should all movies that are reasonably entertaining & insightful warrant a "10" then? How does a movie get "9" - is it through a negative assessment: "This movie was great except for the ending, or this guy's bad acting, so I give it 10-1=9"? Don't even get me started on the thin line between "7" or "8" movies. On the other end of the scale, should I vote on movies I totally denounce, giving them a "1" or "2"? The average vote for these movies will actually be lower if I refrained from voting than if I did (because there's no "0").

That's not considering the other problem of subjectivity - some might be forgiving and give a movie "6" if it wasn't actually very good, while other hot-tempered ones might denounce it as "4". Some might like action movies & give them "8" while more peace-loving types call them "5"-ers. The conceit of IMDB's voting system is that every movie viewer can give an objective assessment of the movie like a thermometer reads the temperature.

Anyway I have to pull down my votes - it's messing up the whole thing, for my personal memories of the movies, and of IMDB's records.

NLB response

30 May 2003 9:06 PM SGT (link)

27 May 2003

Dear Mr Lin

Contact Tracing Measures at National Library Board (NLB)

1. I refer to your letter to <name>, MP for <GRC>, on the above matter.

2. NLB would like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to share the reasons behind the measures we have taken in light of the SARS situation.

3. Firstly, I would like to clarify that the scanning of library patrons' particulars is purely voluntary. This has been highlighted in media reports, a copy of which is attached for your information ("IC scanner keeps record of library visitors", Streats, 8 May 2003). The information captured is kept confidential and is only meant for contact tracing purposes should the need arise. All data would be erased after one month.

4. I agree with your suggestion for NLB to call on our patrons to "do the right thing" in our fight with SARS instead of recording their particulars. We would then depend on everyone's sense of social responsibility to stay away from crowded public places if they feel unwell. However, the unforgiving nature of the SARS virus means that all it takes is for one careless person to go about his or her daily routine despite feeling unwell, to set off another chain of infections. The SARS cluster at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre is a good example of such a situation.

5. Since the contact tracing measures were implemented early this month, the feedback from our customers shows that a vast majority of them support the move and willingly provided us with their details because they want to be contacted and informed quickly should there be a case of infection. Only a small group of patrons who feel that this measure infringes upon their privacy chose not to have their particulars scanned.

6. You also pointed out that NLB should keep borrowing records only if necessary and these records should be purged periodically every month. We keep the data to serve our readers effectively without compromising the official policy pertaining to the privacy of confidential patrons' information. The data is only used to track reading trends, evaluate popular titles, adapt and improve our collections and services in line with changing lifestyle and reading needs and expectations of the members of the public.

7. It is important that precautionary measures introduced remain in place so that patrons can continue to visit the libraries with peace of mind. I thank you for your feedback and look forward to your continued support of our library services.

After returning the last library books I had on me yesterday, I have decided to stay away from the national libraries for a while, maybe a few months, maybe even after the SARS crisis in Singapore has abated and the measures cancelled. It's not a boycott - I'm not trying to hit out at the NLB, and besides a single person's loans are a mere drop in the ocean - it's just that I don't have "peace of mind" when visiting the libraries anymore, whether to browse or borrow books. That's because the measures are ill-considered and ineffective, and I will not pretend otherwise just so that I can continue visiting the libraries.

Some comments on the letter:

With my objections to almost every part of NLB's letter, I think it deserves a reply, but I'm really quite tired of the whole matter (as I believe my readers are too). I think I will just sit out this SARS measure and see what happens later.

Interviews

27 May 2003 10:08 PM SGT (link)

I hate interviews.

Mostly I hate them because I can't answer questions along the lines of "what's so great about you?" I have trouble with these because I don't really think there is anything that great about me - at least, not about the person I am now. I'm not being modest, I'm being honest: I mean, how could anyone possibly consider him/herself important in the larger scale of things unless you're a politician who improved the lives of thousands or millions of people, a scientist who contributed to humanity's collective knowledge, a businessman who built a multibillion-dollar corporation from scratch, or an astronaut who has orbited Earth or visited the moon... you get the point. When I'm supposed to claim some achievements or good qualities about myself that justify why I have the temerity to apply for the scholarship/job and feel I should get it - I can't really say anything. I mean, how distinguished or enlightened would you expect a 20-year-old to be? What accomplishments should he be expected to have? Are we choosing a saint or Model of the Year here?

Above all, it seems to me that these questions give the advantage to the thick-skinned over the genuinely talented or "great". Not that I'm genuinely talented or "great", but I'm certainly not too thick-skinned.

Anyway, besides that annoying line of questions, there's also "what are your goals in life?" This is more reasonable, but it's hardly easy to answer either. Theoretically you could go totally wild and think out of the box, like "go to Mars" or "save the world", but in practice it would be things that are consistent with your future studies or occupation. If you're off to be an architect, maybe "I want to design great buildings that help shape cities and people for the better", or else, if you want to be a salesman, some kind of sales goal you want to achieve.

Besides the two that I can expect to face in my coming interview, there's also the not-so-common but not-unheard-of "who is the person you most admire?" This I have to think about carefully, because I don't have anyone like that, a "role model", probably because I haven't encountered or heard of a person whose life closely mirrors the one I feel I want to have. I mean, if you do have such a person (e.g. Albert Einstein, Lee Kuan Yew, your father), isn't it a bit restrictive for you, like you feel compelled to at least match the guy's achievements and you'll feel terrible if you fall behind them? I mean, it seems to me that the best one could ever hope out of a role model is to become somebody who embodies the role model's ideas e.g. Einstein: revolutionising physics, nuclear pacifism; Lee Kuan Yew: transforming the fortunes of a society; your father: I don't know.

For me, I have things that I like, rather than people I want to emulate - so the ultimate search for ideals as guidance holds true. I like Star Trek and the ideas it espouses, as one should have gathered from reading this site. I also like what I'm now calling the Herskowitz/Zwick dramas (MSCL and O&A), because they so genuinely and sincerely reflect life and the modern human condition. I like the movies I like mostly because they make me think about some issue in ways I'd never done before - never just because of some special effects or sleek directing. On the more mundane level: I see people's behaviour, listen to people's thoughts, and I derive positive or negative lessons from them. Those are the things that have made me what I am today, not role models that I want to follow.

Problem with the kilogram

27 May 2003 10:01 PM SGT (link)

There are problems with the standard sample of the kilogram, a platinum-iridium cylinder stored in France - in the last few times it has been getting lighter in comparison with other reference weights. The New York Times reports on this and the efforts to devise new standards for the kilogram, just as was done for the metre and second with scientific advances (Scientists Struggling to Make the Kilogram Right Again).

Courage Fund; contact tracing

27 May 2003 5:35 PM SGT (link)

...The fund will be used to provide immediate relief to patients and healthcare workers who contracted SARS and those who have died.

It will also be used as hospitalisation relief for patients warded for observation or suspected to have SARS.

And as education grants to children of healthcare workers who have died.

- Channel NewsAsia, No more new projects for Courage Fund which has hit $9.7million

So now we know that these projects to cater to the financial needs of SARS patients, not just victims, I guess the individual payments won't be as excessive as I thought. My letter didn't get printed, by the way. And it's not exactly like a budding writer collecting rejection slips, because the issues I talk about are important issues and I don't see them raised anywhere. But enough about me.

Update: The ST (Courage Fund eyes $25m) has more.

...Where one has been today may be a difficult thing for some people to remember. But help is on the way for those with a mobile phone in hand.

All they have to do is look out for posters that has a postal code on it. There are about 400 establishments like shopping centres, hotels and other popular attractions that have been assigned the postal codes.

Contact tracing using your mobile phone is easy. Just start by keying a new message. Type in the six-digit postal code of the location they are at and send it to 9499-7277.

"It's a pretty innovative service, I'll use it because it's convenient to get myself traced."

"It'll definitely come in helpful."

"It's quite fast, rather than the Contact Bowl sometimes, you may not have a name card with you."

- Channel NewsAsia, Singapore Tourism Board and StarHub launch SMS contact tracing

I hate to sound like the narrator intoning ominously in some cheap horror movie, but I have to say this: "be careful of what you wish for - you might just get it."

Congo & possible UN intervention

27 May 2003 5:19 PM SGT (link)

Congo's four-year war has taken millions of lives, and recently inter-tribal warfare in northeastern Congo has claimed more lives. The small UN force in Bunia has no mandate to intervene, and besides, they are hopelessly outnumbered - Congo War Toll Soars as U.N. Pleads for Aid (New York Times), UN troops wait behind razor wire as Congo's streets run with blood (the Guardian).

Apparently there is some interest by countries like France, Britain and South Africa to send peacekeepers there, in response to appeals from the UN secretary-general and aid groups. But there are limitations:

...It should be noted that the Bush administration, which has occasionally spoken of the great importance it attaches to African security and development, is keeping well away from Congo.

That reflects another problem - the reality that with Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and the "war on terror", the US may think it has quite enough on its plate already, without plunging into the fabled heart of darkness.

- The Guardian, To boldly go? Not likely

It might be callous to say that the US has no strategic interests in Congo, and that will be the main reason why it's hesitant to intervene (there are also the bad memories of similar interventions, or lack thereof, in Somalia and Rwanda). But the US military is not built and financed to right the wrongs of the world, regardless of the cost to itself! Its goals are to protect the United States and its interests. I think it will be very difficult for any international force to stop the bloodshed and restore order based on short-term military intervention and food aid - there must also be reform of African militia and setting up of stable governments. Of course I haven't a clue as to how this can be accomplished, but if people continue to whine about the fecklessness of the UN (duh - if member states don't support it, of course it can't do anything) or the US (correct, it has quite a lot on its plate already), while ignoring the problem of the Africans themselves, peace and prosperity is never going to happen in Congo and other parts of Africa.

Paved with Good Intentions

27 May 2003 12:43 AM SGT (link)

This essay is very important, especially to Singaporeans who feel that there's something missing with the way success has been popularly defined by figures of authority in Singapore, be it the SM or your mother.

...JOYCELN: Consider these 2 stories. Which is closer to yours?

You wake up everyday and work from Monday to Friday, and often, Saturday too. If you finish work early, you and your partner go to your parents' place for dinner and see your child for a few hours. If you work late, you buy a packet of char kway teow from the hawker centre but eat it at home because it's too warm to eat there. You're not crazy about the job but you know that if you keep at it, you can afford a car in 3 years' time, and in 5 years' time, buy a condo close to the primary school you want to send your kid to. Your conversations with people are either for the purpose of networking, work, or for familial obligations you cannot avoid. On weekends, you play golf with your friends at your country club or watch a movie with your partner. Once a year, you go on a ten day vacation to New York, London, or Paris, and when your children are big enough, Disneyland.

Alternatively, you wake up and you have no idea what is going to happen today, tomorrow, 6 months or a year later. Ironically, because of this uncertainty, all possibilities exist for you. You can be the Prime Minister of Singapore, you can make a movie, you can cook a meal you have never cooked before, eat at a place you have never eaten before, you can color your hair red, you can skip instead of walk, you can volunteer at the school you have always wanted to volunteer at, you can write a book, or you can have a baby even though you don't have a maid. You have conversations with people who set your heart palpitating and your mind on fire. Your weekday is not so different from your weekend because everyday you are thinking, creating, and more important, imagining.

- Paved with Good Intentions

The first story rings so true, it's scary - I mean, everyone knows someone who's like that, probably very many people who're like that - maybe you are like that yourself. It's like when the girl climbs out of the TV in The Ring. OK that isn't relevant, but never mind...

Many months back when the situation at work was really lousy, nothing was going right & I positively dreaded going to work and getting scolded for things I did or didn't do - I resolved not to get myself in an occupation where I had the 5.5/1.5 problem: spending 5.5 days (including the half-day on Saturday) pining for the next 1.5 days (the weekend). This will be extremely depressing, not only because of the futility of it all, but also the implication that you are doing nothing useful with your life, or maybe not contributing much of your potential to your work but destroying yourself in the process. Even after you achieve x years of good work or $y in income, that won't be the mythical state of "happiness" - because I think happiness is a process, not a destination. Happiness is like following the recipe for baking a cake, maybe failing the first time, trying it again, adding innovations of your own - as opposed to the product that comes out of the oven when it's done.

And everything the writers mention, whether it's the methods of teaching that focus on examination results, or the sanctified paths to success and fulfilment, should make every Singaporean sit up and take notice. Evaluate your goals, think about yourself and what you really want to be, instead of what you think you should be (in the eyes of others).

Still, of course it won't be good to drift through life without some idea of what you want in it - plans may be good, but Plans defined by others aren't. & of course happiness isn't achieved only as part of a process. For one, my library tour was absolutely tiring in its process, but satisfying and pleasant in its outcome, when I look back at my experience. But the general lesson holds true.

My So-Called Life

26 May 2003 12:22 AM SGT (link)

Go now, go...

Absolutely fantastic.

Hats off to the executive producers, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. Hats off to Winnie Holzman, the creator. Did I mention that they also did Once and Again? Oh yes I did. For their brilliant writing and direction, such that every word said by every character rang so true, whether it's the sometimes-incoherent teenage struggle to parse together sentences, sprinkled liberally with, like, "like" - to the parents and their worries for their children, the teachers - everybody.

Hats off to the star of MSCL, Claire Danes, as Angela Chase, 15-year-old girl and the story of her dealing with her family, friends, teachers and guys etc. (remarkably, Claire Danes was really 15 when she did this show, while all her fellow actors playing high school classmates and friends were at least a year older). She is the highlight of the show, so much that even when we delve into the relationships of the secondary characters (as the show progressed, an O&A trait also), she is never far from the surface.

Angela: It just seems like... you agreed to have a certain personality, or something. For no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, how do you know if it's even you? And, I mean, this whole thing with Yearbook -- it's like everybody's in this big hurry to make this book, to supposedly remember what happened, but it's not even what really happened, it's what everyone thinks was supposed to happen. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it would be a really upsetting book. You know, in my humble opinion.

Every other character is also great: Angela's buddies Rayanne, a messy, slutty kind of girl who means well, and Rickie, a boy mature beyond his age who puts on makeup and hangs out with the two in the hallways, after school, and in the female toilet. Yes the female toilet in MSCL is something like the unisex in Ally McBeal - it's where everyone talks (the girls & Rickie, at least). Sharon, her friend who she has drifted away from in the new year. Jordan Catalano, Angela's crush. Brian Krakow, Angela's neighbour and who secretly likes her. Angela's family: great cook & dad Graham, passive-aggressive mom Patty, and little sister Danielle. That's not it: I also loved the various teachers, including English substitute Mr. Vic Racine, doing his version of "oh Captain, my Captain", but with a twist, and Mr. Richard Katimski, the eventual English permanent with a great laugh.

There are literally so many scenarios, so many exchanges, so many thoughts coming from Angela or the others, that would make you think, "hey that was exactly how it was like for me in high school!" (I extracted one exchange between Brian and Rickie here.) Or else you can delight in the conversations and fights that Graham and Patty have as they experience marriage and raising their kids. (This will be developed full-blown in O&A, with stepparents & siblings thrown in.)

No, actually I can't reproduce the best exchanges here, because they are wrapped up together with the expressions of the characters and the music. This would apply to the last episode, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities", where MSCL gets a sending-off that's deliberately unresolved but is, in my humble opinion, a beautiful way to leave us wondering about the possibilities, and cherishing every moment that's gone by.

Angela: I bet people can actually die of embarrassment. I bet it's been medically proven.

Yes the show only lasted for 19 episodes before it was cancelled. Word has it that it rose to fame again when it was shown again on MTV Channel and other places. Don't even ask me to try to understand why it was cancelled - I loved practically every minute of it. I even loved the episodes that the die-hard fans, from say Television without Pity, didn't like, like the Halloween and Christmas episodes where they get sentimental, and supernatural, in a beautifully-done way (but not good if you like your drama grounded in reality), and "Weekend" which is totally wild. TWoP called it "heretofore-unseen sitcommy humor", but you know, I haven't watched anything this funny since that scene in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids when Wayne Szalinski (the father) got spun round & round (& away) in his garden when he was looking for his shrunken kids. (OK I know that show is childish and quite flawed, but I was young then!)

I also loved the way certain themes are present in each episode that may manifest themselves in something happening to Angela, something happening to her parents, and maybe even somebody else, so that we can see how the same problem or reaction persists in each generation with its own differences. Sometimes it's just a simple sentence like "don't tell me everything ten times", and it gets bounced around and said by different people and with different effects. I can't really pinpoint a bigger version of something like that now - maybe when I watch MSCL again. More carefully this time, to look out for these.

Trivia: there's some evidence that the Chases own a cat, because they talk about it and they buy cat food, but it's never to be seen. So is this guy Tino, who is at least the friend of two of the main characters; once he left the band Jordan Catalano's also in, and for some time everyone talked about him, but he never shows up anywhere. It's something like a running inside joke by the writers to drop these names and leave all of us guessing - it's weird enough that I can't really explain it unless you've watched MSCL yourself.

Trivia No. 2: MSCL uses voiceovers to let its characters be heard when they don't want to say what they're thinking to others - quite conventional but no less effective when the words are great. O&A uses Inner Views, scenes shot in grayscale where the character stands or sits on a chair, surrounded by nothingness, and tells the audience about whatever it is about. I've likened that to therapy sessions. I've seen somewhere that in thirtysomething, an 80's show the creators also did, they used dream sequences. I wonder how those were like.

Jordan Catalano: I'll have to say that many times I wanted to strangle this guy. I mean, he's the worst kind of a "babe" character, who says something like 10 words a day and calls that an achievement. Sure, he has reading problems and all that but he's a congenital drifter through life, with his convertible and guitar (something like Eli in O&A, but much worse). He has a permanent dreamy look that makes him look cool but is really irritating after a while. He's incapable of returning Angela's affection in either thought, prose or action. Except for making out, that is. Other than that he couldn't really care less about Angela, and when they break up, he has merely this vague idea that he's missing something, like he forgot to put on his watch or something. Here's his semi-coherent explanation:

Jordan: It's like, you think... you're safe, or something. That you can just... walk away, any time... Because you don't, like, need her. You don't need anyone. But the thing you didn't realize is, you're wrong.

Earlier, in "Pressure" he almost forces Angela to have sex with him - and I quote him:

Angela: It's so hard to explain, because... it's not gonna sound right because... part of me really wants to...

Jordan: This is the whole reason I didn't want to start this!

Angela: Why!? Because you knew you wouldn't get sex? You'd just be wasting your time?

Jordan: Because you don't get it. You're supposed to. It's accepted. It's what you're supposed to do. Unless you're, like, abnormal.

Goodness, what a nightmare. And we're talking about Claire Danes...Claire Danes's character, that is, here having a crush on you. It's, like, love is blind man.

Angela: Love is when you look into someone's eyes, and suddenly, you go all the way inside, to their soul... and you both know, instantly. I always imagined I would fall in love, nursing a blind soldier. Who was wounded in battle. Or maybe while rescuing someone in the middle of a blizzard, seconds before the avalanche hits. I thought, at least, by the age of fifteen, I would have a love life. But, I don't even have a "like" life.

Who was my favourite character? A close fight between Angela and Brian, and their exchanges, few and far between, but mostly gems, like the one at the end of "Pressure" about sex, and the one in the concluding episode. But really, I think I enjoyed the show, the setting, everyone in it, because I'm not too young, so I can take a detached and mature view of what school and teenagehood was like, and not too old, so that I can be amused and fascinated at how adults try to succeed in their work, be good parents and things like that.

Do I like it more than O&A? I have to say yes, maybe because the creators saw that the show was ending so they packed in everything great they had in it. Maybe they understand teenagers better than middle-aged people (which is most of the O&A people, but not all). Maybe I didn't like the Judy-Sam relationship in O&A that much - I couldn't work up the interest. Mostly, I think for what I said before: it's the perfect time in my life to appreciate and love a show like MSCL. Anyone who can watch DVDs is welcome to borrow it from me, or check it out at Amazon.

Immigrant Nations

25 May 2003 6:57 PM SGT (link)

...It seems that talented immigrants from all across the world have chosen America as their home.

Whereas being Japanese or French or Saudi Arabian is about blood, being American is about believing in certain principles. That is the case precisely because we are a land of immigrants, founded by immigrants.

- OxBlog, Friday, May 23, 2003, 12:44 AM

The discussion was actually about David's original question: "how did the United States manage to become the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth?", but it got me thinking about our little red dot too. Because for 38 years now we've been an immigrant country pretending to be a nation, just that instead of "certain principles" as the bedrock of what makes Singapore what it is, and Singaporeans what they are, we've chosen to rely on the criteria of economic prosperity and the good life (in a shallow sense). Singapore is a nation because it is an economic success story and beautiful place to live and work. That has been built up by a strong, wise government, a hardworking people, and our gumption and perseverance in the face of tough odds against small, resource-starved city-states as we are. Singaporeans are defined as participants in this construction of national wealth and comfortable lives for everyone.

That was me trying to be provocative. Maybe saying that we're pretending is too harsh. Maybe we are trying something radically new here: a nation as a corporation, whose raison d'etre isn't a unity or combination of race, religion, language or geography, but because we have all come here together to get rich. And get rich we will, whether we - some of us, at least - did it in the laissez-faire way under British colonists or in the statist way under the PAP. We're broadening the definition of "nation", just as the Americans had when they gained their independence from the British.

Excluding the small indigenuous population, most Singaporeans have ancestors that came to Singapore for a better life. Times have changed, of course - today's immigrants to Singapore are generally not totally impoverished back in their homelands, or fleeing war or famine. They come to study, to work, maybe even to retire. Since modern Singapore's nationhood is represented by its prosperity, what counts as success in the future is continued economic growth, political stability, and the provision of goods, services and the environment that lets people live comfortable, productive lives.

I mean, I'm groping around to find an understanding about what Singapore - not the land, not the political entity, but the nation - is now, and what it should be, and what implications these have on our lives and how we lead them. I think it's a fascinating question because it also gets intertwined in my personal identity, since I've lived here for 20+ years and probably many more, so I have also imbibed my fair share of the common knowledge of definitions and purposes for the concepts of Singapore and Singaporeans. The Singapore Story, by Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, for instance. Even if you haven't read it, even if you have never attended any class or talk with the name "National Education", you'll identify with the stories and understand the ideas that are in this book, because those shaped Mr. Lee and consequently Singapore as it is. But I need to look deeper, beyond National Education, and hopefully that will let me see the truer picture of things here.

Cult Movies

25 May 2003 6:45 PM SGT (link)

In this grand era of Matrix obsession (overheard yesterday at Kino: "everything on the Matrix is sold out except <some title I forgot>"; this was the philosophy section, so the person probably meant books like Taking the Red Pill)), Entertainment Weekly announced its list of the top 50 cult movies of all time. A New York Times article has the top ten; you'll have to be an EW subscriber to see the full list on their site.

The weird thing is I've only heard of two movies on this top 10 list - Blade Runner, which I haven't watched, but based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was fascinating; and The Shawshank Redemption, which I have watched but didn't think much of. The latter movie's a cult movie?! What, the cult of Morgan Freeman? I must be so out-of-touch with American culture.

But anyway, Morgan Freeman's been great in every role I've seen him in, big or small - he has the kind of commanding presence on the screen every time e.g. Deep Impact, where he played the President assuring his fellow Americans that "we will prevail."

Star Trek reflects America

25 May 2003 6:31 PM SGT (link)

Lileks has a writeup (scroll down) about how the various Star Trek series reflects "the geopolitical climate of its times" - a U.S.-centred one, that is. It's a convincing analysis, though I think the Voyager part was a bit of a stretch.

However, I can't help but remember that TNG got a huge following worldwide, while Deep Space Nine and Voyager did considerably worse - was it because TNG's vision was also very appealing to non-Americans? I mean, the latter two successor shows did worse in the U.S. too, but I can't help but wonder if it's because TNG has a pacific tone to it - the Enterprise-D, helped by a captain whose primary interests are archaeology, diplomacy and Shakespeare, mostly goes on diplomatic & medical missions, and generally doesn't get involved in tense miltary situations or "cowboy" confrontations. The TNG era was a time of general peace and prosperity across the Federation (U.S.?), and it was reflected in the microcosm of the Enterprise-D and its missions.

The Real Agenda

25 May 2003 6:15 PM SGT (link)

Two weeks ago, the Bush administration announced its intention to withdraw the vast majority of American troops based in Saudi Arabia--this after months of growing bitterness between Washington and the House of Saud. Given that our presence in the Muslim holy land was ostensibly the main source of Osama bin Laden's hostility toward the United States, you might have thought that this would have a calming effect on Al Qaeda activity. So how did Al Qaeda react? To date, nothing so much as a videotape, audiocassette, or letter to Al Jazeera has materialized. But if last week's bombings in Riyadh were any indication, it's probably safe to assume that Al Qaeda wasn't exactly appeased...

- The New Republic, Dubious Blame

I think these two events have most clearly shown Al-Qaeda's real motives after you get past its propaganda of American and Jewish oppression of Muslims - destabilise governments and seize power in the Arab world and other places that they think aren't Muslim enough for their liking (all the way to Singapore, and even East Timor). Saddam's regime's collapse has allowed the US to reduce its military presence; Osama bin Laden & his jihadis, who have been agitating against the imperalist encroachment in the holy land, decide to order terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in response. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are a direct challenge not so much to the autocratic regimes that the Arab world mostly has now, as societies built on fundamental principles, or even the slightest modica, of ideals like the separation of the church and state, liberalism and democracy.

The Effectiveness Argument

24 May 2003 2:06 PM SGT (link)

Here I try to analyse the NLB policy from the standpoint of effectiveness. It's too bad I didn't use this angle when I spoke with my MP, and others.

Let us begin from a clean slate. Let us put ourselves in the shoes of the NLB. Let us consider what we are facing calmly, and bear in mind that now, as NLB administrators, we are primarily concerned with how to prevent the spread of SARS. Let's put other considerations for later; we are looking for the most effective way of preventing its spread.

We are facing a potential threat of SARS being spread in a library. Every day large numbers of people enter and leave our libraries. It's a nightmare waiting to happen, should a SARS carrier be one of them, like what happened to the cinema crowd in Outbreak. How should we go about preventing the spread of SARS at libraries?

We can look at what has been done at other places so far. The most common strategy is to conduct temperature checks at the entrances. This is because SARS spreaders have to exhibit symptoms of SARS in order to spread the disease. If you keep out people running high fevers, coughing & wheezing, or generally looking unwell (& of course properly protect those doing the screening), SARS spreaders will be kept out of libraries.

But the library is different compared to other places that rely on temperature checks: it has a means of tracking most of the people who enter libraries, through their borrowing records. For those who don't borrow books, they will have to leave their particulars at the exit. This is the current NLB strategy of mandatory contact tracing: instead of monitoring the symptoms of library users on entering, it makes contact tracing easier should there be cases of infection. On the face of it it's great, because those who borrow books are going to be leaving their particulars anyway, so why not make use of that? That's in contrast to other places that don't have such a setup.

At this point we could go off on half a dozen different tangents, but let's take stock of the two different methods we have and explore each of them separately. Remember, when we encounter a problem with one method, that doesn't mean we leapfrog over the reasoning on both sides & immediately choose the other method. It should be clear now that both methods have their benefits and disadvantages. We also have to look for loopholes and ways of resolving them, as well as things like political cost, economic cost and practicality.

Mandatory contact tracing

First I consider the latter: mandatory contact tracing, in greater depth. (Remember, we are considering effectiveness, not other factors.) One big loophole: the borrower might not be using his own library card. This obviously makes contact tracing done from borrowing records flawed because you won't know whether the person on the card - let's call him A - is the same as the person who borrowed the book i.e. who was in the library at the time. When the SARS cluster emerges and contact tracing has to be done, we really hope the NLB and the contact tracing authorities realise this important point.

Let's consider a scenario where there are 50 borrowers from the library and 20 who don't borrow books, and leave their particulars - they are all potential contacts (this excludes the SARS carrier). Of the 50, 30 use their own cards. Of course you don't know that at first - you will have to call up or look up all of the 50 people to ask them. Let's assume you are reasonably sure that these 30 indeed used their own cards (they're generally trustworthy and forthcoming, and they possess the book and the card when you demand proof). So you issue quarantine orders to these 30 people.

That leaves 20 who didn't use their own cards. Let's say 10 cases look like one-link cases. That means the person at the library used his relative's, friend's or colleague's card. That also means the 10 people on the list for contact tracing purposes are not the ones to issue home quarantine orders to. The authorities (NLB, Cisco guards, or the police) have to track down the card owners and ask them who they left the card with. Then they will visit and/or call up the real borrowers and issue them home quarantine orders. However, there is some doubt as to the veracity of these people's statements. How would you know if the card owner wasn't in fact lying (out of fear or something) and attributed the loan to his relative/friend/colleague? So to ensure everyone in this group isn't exposed to others, you issue 10 x 2 = 20 quarantine orders.

That leaves 10 more cases who you really can't be sure. Perhaps they are one-link cases or two-link cases, or the card owner (and borrower) is just not forthcoming, and he normally leaves his card with any one of his family members or friends. That is surely possible. The book could also have been exchanged with someone else beforehand. (Remember, we are assuming that some of the 50 - 10 here - are not cooperative. In order to ensure maximum effectiveness, we have to consider this kind of uncooperative behaviour, and how your measure will counter it.) Let's say you decide that they are all two-link cases, and you issue 10 x 3 = 30 quarantine orders.

Of course, for those who leave their particulars behind, you simply give the 20 quarantine orders.

Phew! Now you've finally isolated the 70 people you think were at the library, and also those who probably weren't, but which you can't be sure. At the end of the day you have issued 30 + 20 + 30 + 20 = 100 quarantine orders for 70 possible contacts. Assumptions: the ratio of none, one- and two-link cases; the borrowers don't exhibit symptoms very quickly and infect others, so you need only quarantine borrowers, and some more. With these 100 under quarantine, you can be reasonably sure that the SARS will not spread to others. It isn't fail-safe, but it lets you sleep soundly at night.

(But you might still sleep fitfully if you remember that NLB staff do not strictly check everyone's borrowing records before they leave, ascertaining whether they did borrow books: perhaps they brought in a book they previously borrowed and then, on walking out, pretended that they borrowed the book there and then. Maybe they simply avoided the checkpoint when the NLB staff manning it were busy with others. The fact that this policy can be so easily dodged makes it dangerous to rely on completely.)

Oh, and the library will have to be shut and disinfected, probably for a day or two.

Temperature checks

Now I consider temperature checks. To compare with the other measure, let's see how many quarantine orders will have to be issued to potential contacts in the normal scenario. The answer is none.

And we should not say that that's an unfair comparison, because the SARS spreader was stopped at the door and hence did not come into contact with anyone at the library. The default scenario for mandatory contact tracing is to ignore whether entering library patrons show symptoms, hence that will lead to considerations of how many potential contacts have to be isolated. The default scenario for temperature checks is no contacts with anyone inside the library, hence it's zero.

And you don't need to clean up the library at all.

How to fix contact tracing?

The situation is looking very bad for contact tracing. How could we possibly reduce the number of quarantine orders that have to be issued? Remember, with no temperature checks or anything at the door, if a SARS spreader enters the library, the number of people to be quarantined will never reach 0; you'll always have contacts.

One way is to have everyone leave their particulars at the exit, whether you borrow books or not. That will allow you to skip the big mess that was the contact tracing of borrowers. Using the scenario above, 70 quarantine orders will be issued. I think the minimum number of quarantine orders issued is equal to the number of people in the library for the time period (perhaps a day), because you cannot tell who has been exposed and who hasn't. Alternatively you could post staff at the borrowing stations to ask everyone to use their own cards, which will be a great hassle and probably result in greater unhappiness from patrons.

Contact tracing still doesn't beat temperature checks when it comes to the number of home quarantine orders issued. This is not just an artificial statistic to measure effectiveness; it is a very important indicator, because the more possible contacts you have, the more likely somebody's going to flout his quarantine order, or somehow infect someone else. The MOH strategy for weeks now has been to isolate potential contacts from the rest of the population, because that's effective in stopping the spread. If there are less people quarantined, it not only means less manpower needed to trace and monitor them, it means you have a better chance of isolating SARS.

Loopholes in temperature checks?

Now we must consider the scenario where temperature checks fail to stop SARS from spreading in libraries. That will happen if someone passes the temperature check at the entrance, lies when he is asked to declare whether he has been to a SARS-affected area, or been near a SARS patient (he has), and then stays in the library long enough to develop symptoms and hence begin infecting those around him within the library.

I argue that this character would essentially be a bioterrorist, because his purpose for visiting the library and ignoring all precautions would be to spread the disease that he probably knows he has. It doesn't matter whether he would stay at the library the whole day if he wasn't ill. He knows that he is at risk, yet he stays in the library long enough to develop symptoms. But then it's doubtful whether anyone can know whether he/she will develop symptoms in a certain period of time.

When this happens the person will be feverish and have muscle aches, cough, maybe even diarrhoea and rashes. He could hide in a corner and not have anyone see him like this, but then, if he does, he doesn't spread the disease (and when he's subsequently admitted to hospital and contact tracing reveals that he's been at the library, the library can be disinfected as a precaution). If he roams around & acts friendly, the other patrons will notice his condition and eventually get him evicted from the library & admitted to hospital. That sounds like a plausible outcome to me.

Summary of possible measures

Table 1. Possible measures

No. Temperature checks & declaration forms Contact tracing (leaving particulars) Contact tracing (from borrowing records) Remarks
1 No Yes (browsers) Yes (borrowers) Current NLB policy
2 No Yes (all) No From "How to fix contact tracing?"
3 Yes No No -
4 Yes Yes (all) No -
5 Yes Yes (browsers) Yes (borrowers) Included for completeness.

For the effectiveness of these measures, I consider several factors. Remember, for now I'm considering only the effectiveness aspect of anti-SARS measures.

Table 2. Effectiveness of measures

1: Assuming there are 50 borrowers and 20 browsers at the library together with the SARS carrier. It is also assumed that the SARS contact is a normal case and not a bioterrorist.
2: The above-mentioned SARS carrier who develops symptoms only after he enters the library.

No. Measure SARS spreaders stopped at entrance Facilitates contact tracing No. of quarantine orders1 Stops bioterrorists2 No. of quarantine orders for bioterrorist situation
1 Mandatory contact tracing through particulars & borrowing records No Yes 70-100+ No; contact tracing afterwards 70-100+
2 Mandatory contact tracing through particulars for all No Yes 70 No; contact tracing afterwards 70
3 Temperature checks & declaration forms Yes No 0 No; no help to contact tracing <=70 (those who come forward)
4 Temperature checks & declaration forms, with leaving particulars Yes Yes 0 No; contact tracing afterwards 70
5 The whole shebang Yes Yes 0 No; contact tracing afterwards 70

Conclusion based on effectiveness

I think it should be clear now that the current NLB policy is the worst option of all: considering only the aspect of effectiveness, it plainly isn't. It doesn't stop SARS spreaders from entering libraries, and offers scant consolation to those who want to stop the spread of SARS afterwards, by being a blunt tool in targeting those that need to be quarantined. In the best scenario only the number who actually need to be quarantined are quarantined; in the worst many more are quarantined unnecessarily. By the time the NLB follows through this unwieldy policy completely, and makes quite a few people unhappy, many more may have been infected, and in turn infected others.

Conversely, the best options so far found are numbers 4 and 5, where 5 adds mandatory contact tracing using borrowing records to number 4's temperature checks, declaration forms (at entrances) and compulsory registration and leaving particulars behind (at exits). What is the advantage they offer over option 3 (no leaving behind of particulars)? They ward off the threat of bioterrorists by making sure everyone who was in the library can be traced and quarantined, whereas option 3 leaves open the possibility that someone may have been in the library, got exposed to the bioterrorist, and then hides at home or evades the authorities for some reason, like fear or denial. In options 4 and 5, all the 70 patrons will be found.

In fact, I think it should be clear enough that mandatory contact tracing through borrowing records is a messy process that involves questioning (and possibly detaining) many people to find out who was the borrower, and more quarantine orders than possible contacts (because some people may give false testimony). Mandatory contact tracing through leaving particulars behind at exits is much better in that area - whatever it does, leaving particulars behind does it better. So options 1 (current policy) and 5 (everything) should be rejected.

The effectiveness argument concludes that option 4 - temperature checks, declaration forms and mandatory leaving of particulars behind - is the most effective option against SARS spreading in libraries.

But I choose option 3

We may indulge in some speculation about why option 1 was chosen over the others, when it's so obviously the least effective. It could be that it's less manpower-intensive: only one or two NLB staff needed to man the exits to take down the particulars of non-borrowers. You could also argue that it's the "least intrusive": while temperature checks and declarations affect all patrons, option 1 touches only those who do not borrow books. (I put quotes around "least intrusive" because I think it's actually the most intrusive.) Overlooking the big loopholes in this policy, I guess these were the factors going for it.

With other considerations besides effectiveness, I would choose option 3 over option 4 i.e. not asking patrons to leave their particulars behind. This is not because I'm selfish and shortsighted and I like to see people die so that I can go out of libraries without leaving my particulars behind. Look again at Table 2: when will option 3 fail and option 4 succeed? A bioterrorist. The bioterrorist is the one who thwarts temperature checks at the entrance and proceeds to develop symptoms and infect others while inside (and we assume nobody stops him until he does serious damage).

We must try to assess the plausibility, and probability, that anyone will choose to act in the bioterrorist fashion. The whole idea of public policy is that of compromise, of seeking the best solution available without tripping over too many people's toes. It isn't perfect & infallible and, I would argue, was never meant to be. If the threat of a bioterrorist is low, so low that it's practically nil, then there is no need for the increased protection of option 4. Only paranoia, or the futile quest for a 100% effective solution, will lead people to demand option 4. I think we can live with a measure that only breaks down when bioterrorists show up to thwart it.

Some might point out the example of that family who went to a clinic to seek treatment - the GP told the SARS patient and his family to put on masks and wait outside for the ambulance to take them to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. When the GP later went out to check on them, some family members had wandered off to the neighbouring Chinese medicine shop and hawker centre. Is a bioterrorist - someone who has been exposed to SARS and stays in the library long enough to develop symptoms and infect others - that improbable, you ask. How would option 3 address this threat? We must have mandatory contact tracing for this eventuality. But look: if anyone, no matter whether he's exposed to a SARS patient or not, tries to enter a library, if he passes the temperature check, then he's clear, he won't spread SARS to others in the library. In this aspect option 3 will give patrons more protection and security than other public places like hawker centres, who certainly cannot take the temperatures of everyone who wants to enter.

Ultimately we want to ensure that nobody gets infected by SARS at our libraries. If that's all you care about, and you're a reasonable person and have looked at my reasoning above, option 4 is the way to go. However, if you're like me, and you don't think the exaggerated threat of bioterrorists is enough to justify going all out on option 4, I think option 3 should be what we do.

Privacy issues

Notice that so far I have said nothing about the issue of privacy when the NLB takes down the particulars of those visiting its libraries, and those who borrow books. Without saying anything about privacy, I can still demolish the current NLB policy as misguided solely because it isn't as effective as other measures. If we consider that this policy surrenders our "essential liberty", to remember the quote from Benjamin Franklin, for its false security, the case against it is even more damning.

The effectiveness argument may go down better with establishment types who don't give a damn if you talk to them about civil liberties*, but sit up and take notice when it's shown that a policy isn't effective. It might be because of genuine concern for the health and welfare of those the policy affects, or it could just be crass self-protection.

*: It's worse than not giving a damn: one MP, and probably more, has shown himself to be contemptuous of those who even mention civil liberties in the light of harsh, unquestioned SARS measures by the government (see this).

Aside: Government buildings

My friend, who inspired this soliloquy on SARS measures for NLB, compares the NLB policy to that in government buildings, where the particulars of visitors entering are routinely recorded. Why shouldn't national libraries be held to the same standard?

Because government buildings are actually private workplaces: for many reasons, like security and protection of official secrets, outsiders' particulars have to be recorded and they have to be escorted in and out. The function of government workplaces is not to welcome anyone walking in from the street: it is to do their work, and do it well. However, is the function of a national library to limit access only to those who go through a cumbersome registration process? No, it should be to welcome anyone who wants to come in and browse and/or borrow books. In problematic times like the present SARS crisis, of course there have to be changes to this, but the basic idea remains.

Aside: NLB's liability

There is also the question of how much responsibility does NLB truly have over its patrons and employees.

Of course they have an obligation to their staff to keep their workplace SARS-free - hence they probably have twice-daily temperature checks for staff, measures to take when staff return from SARS-affected areas, things like that. What about patrons? It's surely impractical to have patrons take the same precautions as staff, but NLB will have a similar obligation towards protecting patrons, and hence their staff, from SARS within NLB.

That's why I was probably wrong - both legally and logically - when I once thought that if someone starts a cluster of SARS infections in a national library, it's not the NLB's fault because libraries are public places like hawker centres or playgrounds. It's the person's fault for entering the library when he knew he had symptoms and was probably infectious - blaming the NLB would be like blaming the police for a robbery, instead of the robber.

Perhaps the idea is that patrons of libraries come under the NLB's protection when they're in the library, just like their staff who might get infected too, should patrons become infected. As in the robbery example, the effectiveness of the police in protecting the public from robbers and other criminals is also important in determining whether they were negligent in doing that duty when real robberies occur. But what is NLB's responsibility here? If it has a policy to fight SARS in libraries that will be successful short of bioterrorists i.e. is largely successful, then is NLB still negligent? Or would it be only if a bioterrorist shows up? That's really a matter of precedence and opinion, though I think that under the present circumstances, where NLB has chosen a measure that is the least effective of the options available - and what's more, puts efficient contact tracing above protecting its staff (because mandatory contact tracing will not save its staff from coming into contact with SARS spreaders) - then NLB staff might have enough cause for a lawsuit against NLB. But that's their decision to make.

The overflowing Courage Fund

23 May 2003 1:38 AM SGT (link)

Dear Sir,
Recently the media have started showing advertisements to appeal for donations to the Courage Fund, set up to raise funds for Sars victims and their families. Donation boxes have also been placed at many locations around Singapore.

The fundraising has been extremely successful. The Courage Fund now stands at $9,508,956 (as shown on the ST Interactive website on 22 May 2003). With the government's one-for-one contribution, and an additional $1 million, the Fund will total $20,017,912.

Also as of 22 May 2003, there have been 29 deaths in Singapore due to SARS. If the purpose of the Fund is to provide for SARS victims' families, each family will get a payout of $690,273. This is assumed that the money is divided equally, and it does not consider life insurance policies the SARS victims may already have bought. This is nearly $700,000, which probably far exceeds many life insurance payouts.

I am not being cruel to the families of SARS victims, but is the Courage Fund overflowing? Could we better use the Fund for other purposes, such as subsidising the hospitalisation fees of those who are poor and who came down with SARS? Or could we perhaps donate it to other worthy causes that need money more urgently?

Regards,
Mr. Lin Ziyuan.

The age of cell phones

23 May 2003 12:01 AM SGT (link)

Wired News has an article on societal pressures to own a cell phone (She's Gotta Have It: Cell Phone), while Mercury News has a report on a study of the behaviour of cell phone users (How cell phones are changing our social habits). I can testify for most of the things said in the Wired article - and no, I'm not planning to get one any time soon, thanks.

USP interview

22 May 2003 11:03 PM SGT (link)

Today I finally received the letter from NUS requesting me to go for an interview for the USP. Now I feel my life's going somewhere. It's easy to slack off in the interval between NS and university, but it's certainly better to pick oneself up and get on with it sooner, rather than just enjoy life till you have university work staring at you in the face.

Anyway I'm now watching My So-Called Life on DVD, a very good television drama mainly about a teenage girl Angela (played by Claire Danes) and her trials and tribulations as she tries to survive high school. I learnt about this series because it's done by the same people (Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick and Winnie Holzmann) as those who created and worked on Once and Again. In the coming days I will be posting quotes from the show that are the parts I look for in every episode - less of whether they're joyful or sad than the fact that they're so real. Here's a gem (Brian's smart but a bit nerdy and shy, and Rickie's bisexual):

[Looking at a couple.]

Brian: They've been holding hands for, like, two weeks. I'm serious, they never let go. I mean, it's like their hands have been surgically implanted, you know?... I mean, how do they eat?

[later]

Brian: Not that I condemn it, I mean, if they want to hold hands.

Rickie: No, exactly.

Brian: I mean, it's fine with me just... I'm just wondering when all this happened, you know?

Rickie: Do I.

Brian: I mean, people pairing off into couples. It's like I wasn't expecting it, or something, like did we cover this? Was I absent that day?

Rickie: You know I was!

- My So-Called Life, "The Zit"

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